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Rising temperatures trigger online hate speech, says study

New research has found that violent online behaviours increase with the rise in temperatures

Findings from the Climate Impact Research discover the connection between climate change and digital behaviours. (Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko, Unsplash)

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Extreme temperatures are fuel for online hate speech, according to a recent study from the German Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK).

A recent study shows a sharp increase in violent online behaviour across the USA when temperatures are above or below a feel-good window of 12-21 degrees Celsius (54-70 °F).

Also read: Arctic warming four times faster than rest of Earth: study

Researchers from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research discovered an increase in hate speech across climate zones, income groups, and belief systems for too hot or cold temperatures after analysing billions of tweets on the social media network Twitter in the US. This highlights the limitations of adaptation to intense heat and highlights a social aspect of climate change that has yet to be fully appreciated: conflict in the digital arena, which has repercussions for both societal cohesion and mental health.

"We found that both the absolute number and the share of hate tweets rise outside a climate comfort zone: People tend to show a more aggressive online behaviour when it's either too cold or too hot outside," says PIK scientist Annika Stechemesser, first author of the study published in The Lancet Planetary Health. "We detected hate tweets in more than four billion tweets from U.S. users using our AI algorithm and combined them with weather data."

"Receiving hate speech online poses a major risk to one's mental health. Online hatred can worsen mental health issues, particularly for young people and marginalised groups, according to psychiatric literature, Stechemesser continues. "We see that online hate increases up to 12% for colder temperatures and up to 22% for hotter temperatures across the USA outside the feel-good window of 12-21°C (54-70°F)."

In order to reach these conclusions, the authors identified around 75 million English-phrased hate tweets using a machine-learning approach from a data set made up of more than 4 billion tweets sent from the US between 2014 and 2020. In order to reach these conclusions, the authors identified around 75 million English-phrased hate tweets using a machine-learning approach from a data set made up of more than 4 billion tweets sent from the US between 2014 and 2020. The authors next looked at how the number of hate tweets changed as local temperatures rose or fell.

The researchers used the UN's official definition of hate speech as their guidance, which includes cases of language that disparages an individual or a group based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender, or other identification criteria.

Also read: Most global cities have declining air quality: report

The smallest number of hate tweets is attained for temperatures between 15 and 18°C (59-65°F), according to the authors, who discovered low levels of hate tweets in the USA during a "feel-good window" of 12-21°C (54-70°F). Increases in hate tweets are correlated with hotter and colder temperatures. Depending on the typical temperatures, different climate zones have slightly different feel-good temperature windows. However, across all climate zones and socioeconomic distinctions like income, religious beliefs, or political inclinations, temperatures above 30°C, or 86 degrees Fahrenheit, are consistently connected to sharp rises in online hate.

This underlines the limitations of the human capacity for climate adaptation: "Even in high-income neighbourhoods where residents can afford air conditioning and other heat mitigation alternatives, we detect an increase in hate speech on sweltering days. Or, to put it another way: People can only take so much. As a result, there are probably adaptation limits to extreme temperatures that are lower than our simple physiological limits, according to Anders Levermann, co-author of the study and head of the Potsdam Institute's Complexity Science department as well as a researcher at Columbia University in the United States.

More aggressive online behaviour can have serious effects because hate speech has been shown to have a detrimental effect on the mental health of those who are the targets of it. It may also be a good indicator of hate crimes that occur offline.

Researchers have been debating how society's stability and human behaviour are impacted by climate conditions for centuries. The study's author, Leonie Wenz, working group leader at the Potsdam Institute, says that it is now more crucial than ever because of the ongoing effects of climate change. Our findings demonstrate a novel effect pathway through which climate change can influence societal cohesion generally and people's mental health. Therefore, dramatically and quickly reducing emissions will have positive effects that extend beyond the environment. Our mental health also depends on preventing excessive global warming. 

Also read: Could clean air be causing global warming?

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